I have taken recently to wearing a “Black Lives Matter” wristband. I do this not to earn political correctness points – as if white men needed any more points; as if a few more points could balance the injustice ledger; as if disarming the violent machinations of late-modern-global-capitalism had anything to do with points at all.
I wear the wristband for reasons having mostly to do with faith.
This past Sunday, many Christians heard a series of biblical texts, all of which orbited around faith – what it looks like, how it feels, why it matters. According to Luke, first century disciples urged Jesus to help them: “Increase our faith!”
I’m sure people of color in the United States would plead for something a bit more specific: “Increase justice!” Could faith have anything to do with justice? Good Lord, I hope so. But how?
Among the texts many of us heard this past Sunday, this portion from the ancient prophet Habakkuk sounds rather eerily as if it were written just yesterday:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save? …
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails (Habakkuk 1:2-4).
Even so, Habakkuk writes, “the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk explains what that looks like for him: “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart, and I will keep watch” (2:1).
That prophetic posture reminds me that living by faith means, in part, paying attention. Clearly, we are saturated these days with constant news and images and campaign soundbites and tweets and Facebook status updates – I’d rather not pay quite so much attention to all of that.
As a white man, however, my Christian faith demands paying attention to the resurgent and more visible dynamics of race and gender in this country – more particularly, the pernicious effects of white supremacy and the stubborn resilience of misogyny.
As a white man, I can easily overlook or never even notice how the institutions and policies of American society are set up for my benefit. I need not look any farther than my own campus and classrooms to see the dynamics of privilege swirling around my whiteness and maleness. Not needing to notice all this is part of the privilege of being white and male – and some will defend that privilege vigorously, with violence if necessary.
“Black Lives Matter” now encircles my wrist as I try to do what Habakkuk did – to stand at the watch post and pay attention. In a society that wants me to take my white privilege for granted, this wristband brings that privilege to my attention whenever I glance down at my keyboard to do my work – it’s in my field of vision right now, as I type this. It urges me to pay attention and do whatever I can to make my work matter for justice.
How puny and trivial, I often think. What in the world (quite literally) can I do as an affluent, white, male, priest, and academic that would make even a dent in the well-established, centuries-old systems of dominance and oppression? By myself, probably not much. But with others, far more than I realize. That’s how I read what many of us heard from Luke’s Jesus this week:
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5).
Filipe Maia, a colleague of mine, preached brilliantly on this text. He reminded me that it’s not very likely that Jesus just chose those species of plants randomly, as if any kind of seed or tree would do to make his point.
The mustard plant common to the Middle East is not usually cultivated because it spreads quickly all on its own and germinates easily in desert conditions. It tolerates not only hot and arid conditions but survives even wild fires. It doesn’t need much depth of soil and grows comfortably on rocky hillsides. Its sticky seed coatings cling to the hides of animals and spread over vast regions. Or, as we might say today, the mustard plant is an invasive species.
Mulberry trees can grow much larger than mustard plants. Once they’re established, they send down deep roots and grow thick trunks and need very little tending; they are stubborn, resilient, and can live well for many generations, often more than 75 years – they seem immovable and permanent.
Here, then, is what I heard Luke’s Jesus say: If you think you don’t have enough faith, or that it doesn’t matter, or that nothing you do ever really makes a difference, or that silly little wristband is just your latest nod to consumerist impulses to soothe white guilt, think again.
Faith can take root in the driest conditions and the roughest terrain; it will germinate more quickly than you imagined, and its sticky seeds will quietly spread beyond where you thought possible; before long every hillside will blossom with its bright colors.
The seeds of faith will respond to even the slightest gesture of nurture and the tiniest hint of water. Faith itself will quietly spread, I heard Jesus say, and it will eventually overtake even the most resilient trees, uprooting their deep and stubborn systems of pride and prejudice, of hostility and violence – even the ones planted deeply in your own heart and soul and body.
This, we might suppose, is why the psalmist wrote so confidently – with such absurd confidence – the words so many Christians recited this past week:
Do not fret over evildoers;
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
For they shall soon wither like the grass,
and like the green grass fade away.
Put your trust in God and do good; …
Commit your way to God in trust,
for God will bring it to pass (Psalm 37).
I find it impossible to cultivate that kind of trust on my own; I need others to help me.
The peculiar faith of Christians has nothing to do with lone-ranger style heroics or herculean efforts. It’s actually simpler and more profound: take your tiny little seed of faith and combine it with the seeds of others. Plant those sticky seeds.
Here in Northern California, I’m surrounded by images of what a shared and sticky faith might yield – hillsides covered in the glorious colors of faith and justice.